What is Wrong with Nashville SC?
After a 1-2 loss against Minnesota in Nashville's 6th straight game without a win, Nashville sits outside a playoff spot for the first time in months.
Through Nashville's first two and a half seasons in MLS, such a stretch is unprecedented.
A once impenetrable defense has given up 1.8 goals per game over the last 10 and has been erratic.
A formerly diversified attack has now fallen solely at the feet of Hany Mukhtar who is responsible for 42% of the team's goals this season, the highest percentage in MLS.
Gary Smith said that if the team made the playoffs this season, it would be the club's "biggest achievement since I've been here."
There is no doubt that confidence is at an all time low within the team.
Despite filling an obvious hole at Right Back by signing Shaq Moore, the team still has clear issues and lacks the cohesion it did at in 2020 and 2021.
Once the best in MLS, Nashville's defense has been unreliable. Even with Moore, one of the league's best Right Backs, and back-to-back defender of the year, Walker Zimmerman, careless errors and mental lapses have kept Nashville out of games.
Zimmerman has not been playing at the same level as in past seasons. He remains stalwart in the air but especially in recent weeks, a failed clearance or block has lead to an opposing goal.
Offensively, the issue is obvious: there is a huge lack of secondary scoring. The return of Randall Leal has appeared to be a boost but has not translated on the scoresheet.
CJ Sapong's role has changed greatly as of late as Nashville has struggled to deliver high quality service into the box. His hold up play has been good, but the reliance on he and Mukhtar to singlehandedly manufacture attacks is finally catching up to Nashville.
A brief bright spot, Teal Bunbury scored a goal in 4 straight games but is now out with an injury. Aké Loba has been out with a "trunk" injury but realistically, he still would not play more than 10 minutes even at 100%.
While not obvious, the midfield duo of Sean Davis and Dax McCarty have been among the team's weakest points during this stretch.
While a midfielder is not expected to draw the attention of fans and dominate every game, neither player has been able to provide anything going forward, nor make the necessary tackles to stop an opposing attack before the defense must deal with a numbers disadvantage.
The depth may not be great, but the biggest issue is not a lack of talent. The most significant reason for Nashville's struggle is a lack of identity.
In 2020, Nashville was a defensive team that would make very few errors and strike at the right time. In 2021, they were a more offensive team which strived on the counter attack with their successful shift to 5 in the back. In 2022, though, they are neither but try to maintain characteristics of both.
The counter attacking play that worked last season is not sustainable due to the lack of secondary involvement. Defensively, trading Alistair Johnston may not have been the ultimate cause of the struggle but since then, no defender has been the same.
Despite all these issues, how can it change?
Smith confirmed that the team is transitioning to 4 in the back and will opt for a 4-3-3. I think this is a necessary change and agree with his claim that this move has made the team more creative despite that not yet being backed up by points.
This will change the team's approach to the striker position and attack as a whole as there will not be wing backs to attack the flank and whip in a cross to Sapong or Mukhtar. Mukhtar can drop in deeper and create from the middle third, something that has been lacking.
The reintroduction of Aníbal Godoy tonight against Dallas will be a big help as he does a great job of controlling the game and can also contribute in the attack. Along with a more defensive partner, they must focus on connecting the defense and attack rather than simply playing the direction they face at all times.
The front three must improve their combination play and do more than rely on a Leal cross or a run off Sapong as he holds up the ball. So few times have I seen an attacker through one on one with the goalie. Mukhtar and Leal are capable of threading the needle and the other attackers must make runs accordingly.
With a more heavily involved midfield, the attack will have many more options, thus will not need to settle for low quality chances. Nashville are at their best when the ball keeps moving until a high quality opportunity is found such as Leal on the wing, Mukhtar in space, or Sapong in the air.
Nashville is a good team in a bad stretch. With Godoy returning and a recognition that it is now or never, Nashville will step it up. Godoy put it well, saying "we must win."
There has been no type of home field advantage at Geodis Park, the team has not had back to back MLS wins since May, the manager thinks making the playoffs is a huge success, and still, Nashville is, astonishingly, one point out of a playoff spot.